After four-and-a-half years of quiet time, Kings of Leon are back with their eighth album. When You See Yourself is the Followill boys’ second consecutive album to be produced by Markus Dravs, the British studio wiz known for his work with Arcade Fire, Coldplay, Florence + the Machine and Mumford & Sons.
Dravs’ past collaborators offer a clue to the sort of space Kings of Leon occupy in the contemporary music landscape. While their early records – namely 2003’s Youth & Young Manhood and 2004’s Aha Shake Heartbreak – paid homage to the band members’ southern roots, Kings of Leon have long since ascended to the pop-cultural mainstream.
It should be said, however, that Kings of Leon were never an authentically underground proposition. The aforementioned duo of albums were made in partnership with Nashville songwriter/producer Angelo Petraglia, who’s co-written songs for Trisha Yearwood and Taylor Swift, no less. And even before the release of Youth & Young Manhood, the UK music press had decreed Kings of Leon rock music’s next big things.
But the band’s biggest jump came with their fourth album, 2008’s Only by the Night, which was led by the near-ubiquitous singles ‘Sex On Fire’ and ‘Use Somebody’. The global success of these more pop-oriented songs transformed Kings of Leon from a group of hirsute indie-rockers into a multi-Grammy award-winning, festival headline act.
Remarkably, in the dozen years since Only by the Night, Kings of Leon haven’t fallen from this lofty post. Their arena-rock ambitions were crystallised on 2010’s Come Around Sundown and 2013’s Mechanical Bull, while 2016’s Walls was their first album to reach #1 in the US Billboard 200.
At its core, however, Kings of Leon remains a tight-knit family operation. The band consists of brothers Caleb (vocals/guitar), Nathan (drums) and Jared Followill (bass) with their cousin Matthew on guitar. They all live within a 10-minute drive of each other in Nashville, where they’ve all recently become parents.
It’s here, in the middle of a frozen US winter, that Music Feeds got hold of Nathan Followill to talk about the new album, the band’s relationship with Dravs and how Kings of Leon have achieved such career longevity.
Music Feeds: It’s been four-and-a-half years since you released Walls. When was the new album recorded?
Nathan Followill: It would’ve been 2019, starting in the Spring of 2019. Don’t quote me on that – all the days blend together now that we don’t really leave the house. But we’ve sat on it for a year or so.
MF: I’m sure some of the delay was due to the pandemic but were there unexpected benefits of waiting a bit longer between recording and releasing?
NF: It gave us the chance to live with the record for a little while and see if there was anything we wanted to go back and change. Most of the time you record a record, then after you’ve played those songs 50, 60 times on tour you’re like, man I wish I would’ve changed this or changed that. So we had that opportunity and we were so pleased with the record that we did not go back and change anything.
MF: You toured Walls heavily through 2017 and 2018. How long after the end of the touring cycle did you start to ponder your next album?
NF: After that tour, we were definitely all ready for a break. I know Caleb, creatively, around the start of January is when he usually gets the bug to start kicking around ideas or [suggests we] get in the rehearsal space and just jam for a little while. But this one we actually took the most time on pre-production on a record we ever have. It was the longest process we’ve ever had as far as making a record would go, for sure.
MF: Markus Dravs produced When You See Yourself. Was he involved in the pre-production process?
NF: We’ll usually get stuff together, put it on tape or a file and send him stuff just to get his take on the direction we’re going and just to keep him in the loop of what to be prepared for. But once we settle on the songs and we know what we’re going to do, he’ll come in and we’ll do a last week of just running through all the songs and making sure we have them down.
MF: When You See Yourself is very melodic, atmospheric and a bit calmer than some of your previous records. Were there certain things you discussed with Markus in terms of the sound and mood you wanted to get across?
NF: We know going in what the bones of it will be, but when we get in there, Matthew is very experimental with keyboards and stuff like that. And we have a couple of guys that tour with us and Liam [O’Neil], our keyboard guy, he was able to come in and help out. But the atmosphere of the record, it’s definitely something that we all go in hopefully on the same page.
Now, when you get in there, some people want to take a song a different direction and the great thing about Markus is he will try any idea you want. He doesn’t want anyone to leave the studio feeling like their voice wasn’t heard or we didn’t try something that they wanted to hear on a song. That’s the great thing about Markus, but that’s also a fault for him because when you get four family members in there that are all wanting to try a gazillion things, it can make for some long studio days.
MF: You worked with Angelo on your first six records and also did three with Ethan Johns and Jacquire King co-producing. What is it about Markus’ production style that gels with the direction you wanted to go, post-Mechanical Bull?
NF: The thing that I personally love about Markus is he is so passionate. He’s an album guy; he wants to make a work of art from start to finish. Like, when we met with him he was like, “if you’re wanting a producer that’s going to go for the two big singles on the record and the rest is filler stuff, I’m not your guy.” Then he was like, “but if you want to make the best album we can make, then I’m your guy.”
MF: You’ve conducted some major stylistic renovations over the years. Do you have a process for assessing whether new ideas are appropriate for inclusion on a Kings of Leon album? Or do you just go with what feels good?
NF: I think we go by feel, for sure. We are known for… when we have gone through all the songs that we want to record on a record, we end up getting at least two if not three more [out] of us just jamming in the studio.
In the early days when we were making so many records so quick, that’s because we were doing all of our writing in soundchecks. We don’t write songs as much at soundchecks anymore because we don’t travel the same way that we did. So, we definitely rely more on Caleb getting an itch and saying, “Hey, let’s get in there and just mess around.”
MF: Walls was your first album to reach #1 in the Billboard 200. It also topped the UK charts and reached #3 in Australia. Plenty of bands from your era have struggled to repeat the highs of their early years. What do you think explains your continued success?
NF: First of all, we’re lucky to still be doing this. Eight records in, that’s crazy. But it’s just literally what the pulse is of the band and of the guys. We definitely don’t have a Kings of Leon formula that we go into each record thinking like, “Okay, as long as we achieve this, this and this, then we’re fine.” We just kind of go with the flow.
‘When You See Yourself’ is out today. Yesterday it was announced the arena rock stalwarts are getting into the crypto game and selling the album via non-fungible tokens (NFTs) – making them one of the first bands to do so.